'Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am': Film Review | Sundance 2019

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders
An informative, if unadventurous appreciation of a great writer.

Novelist Toni Morrison talks about her life and work in Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’ latest documentary.

When she was a girl, Toni Morrison and her sister started scrawling on the sidewalk a word they’d seen in the neighborhood. They got two letters into that four-letter word when their mother came running out to stop and scold them. They didn’t know what the word meant, but it was an early and lasting lesson. “Ultimately, I knew that words have power,” Morrison says, recalling that incident in Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’ solid, visually beautiful documentary about her. Two major themes run through Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am — her deep love of language, and her determination to write from a black cultural perspective, without explaining her culture to the rest of the world. 

Greenfield-Sanders was Morrison’s friend and a portrait photographer long before she won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993. She encouraged and appeared in his documentary The Black List (2008)the start of a series that came to include The Latino List and most recently The Trans List (2016). The style of those documentaries, with subjects talking against a plain background, is evident here. The difference is that Morrison takes center stage, with critics, novelists and Oprah Winfrey turning up to talk about her importance.  

The film begins with a striking title sequence by artist Mickalene Thomas that pieces together collage-like images to create Morrison’s face at all the stages of her life. Despite such occasional flair, the film lands like an unadventurous installment of American Masters, which it is. It splits the difference between addressing an audience who might be new to Morrison’s novels, and readers who discovered her long ago, many through Oprah’s Book Club. The documentary will likely serve both audiences without astonishing either one.

Looking into the camera, Morrison, now 87, narrates her life in a tone that is determined, self-assured and sly. Family photographs, book jackets and newspaper clippings are elegantly woven in to illustrate.

At the start of her career, she was a divorced mother raising two sons alone, writing novels early in the morning while holding a full-time job as a book editor. Even readers who know Morrison’s fiction may be surprised at how influential she was during her years as an editor at Random House, where she brought in many black authors. Angela Davis remembers that Morrison contacted her about doing an autobiography before Davis herself knew there was a book she wanted to write. Morrison says that she respected street protests, but that they are ephemeral. She preferred commissioning books because “they’ll last.”

Morrison’s own novels, poetic yet clear-eyed about society, have touched people so deeply that poet Sonia Sanchez ends in tears talking about the role Morrison has played in depicting a world of black characters who had often been ignored in literature. Winfrey gave Morrison a new, wider audience for novels including The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon and Beloved. Winfrey, who produced and starred in the film version of Beloved, about a woman who killed her child rather than let her grow up in slavery, says she values Morrison’s work partly because it “allows you to understand that pain is OK.” 

Given all the accolades she has now, it is startling to hear Morrison talk about the condescending praise for her second novel, Sula, in 1973. The New York Times review called Morrison too good a writer to restrict herself to the “provincial” world of black characters. But that world was exactly what Morrison had chosen. She wanted “the white gaze” to be absent from her books, she says. She did not want to represent the black experience but to speak from within it, rejecting “the assumption that audiences were white,” which had shaped the work of even great black writers. Citing Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, she asks,“Invisible to whom?” The clarity of her vision as she talks about race may be the most trenchant and potent aspect of the film.

Morrison remains protective of her privacy here. Her given name is Chloe, which she says was so frequently mispronounced that she chose to use Toni, from her saint’s name, Anthony. Names are a way of separating outer and inner selves, she explains. The inside self, she adds with a glint of mischief, is “the one who doesn’t do documentaries.” No matter. In The Pieces I Am, the outer self is enough to let viewers know that Morrison and her novels are treasures.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Documentary Premieres)
Production company: Perfect Day Films
Cast: Toni Morrison, Hilton Als, Oprah Winfrey, Angela Davis, Walter Mosley, Sonia Sanchez
Director: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders
Producers: Johanna Giebelhaus, Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, Chad Thompson, Tommy Walker
Director of photography: Graham Willoughby 
Editor: Johanna Giebelhaus
Music: Kathryn Bostic

119 minutes